Miracles and ducks: Who was St Cuthbert?

Doors had to be removed after the sculpture wouldn't fit, as Chris Connel reports

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St Cuthbert was a monk, bishop and hermit of Lindisfarne who lived in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

A respected and venerated figure in life, after his death in AD687, Cuthbert's cult flourished, reaching its heydey in the 12th Century but continuing to resonate through the medieval period and beyond.

Good news 2013

The Gospels - Good News 2013

The impact on today's wildlife protection of St Cuthbert's conservation work is among the good news stories encountered by presenter Chris Connel in his modern day pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Durham.

The Gospels - Good News 2013 is broadcast on Monday 1, July at 22:35 BST on BBC One North East and Cumbria, and nationwide on the iPlayer thereafter.

Miracle tales - the chief written source for most medieval saints' cults - show Cuthbert as one of the most important English saints, transcending geographical, political and social boundaries with stories ranging from royalty to commoner, from prophecy to cure, and from Northumbria to Norway.

Posthumously, Cuthbert became focal to his church and religious community. He was carried with them as they moved around the north of England, fleeing from Vikings and other instability, and asserting their land and political rights.

The church may have been founded at Lindisfarne, moved to Chester-le-Street and finally settled at Durham, but it was always the church of St Cuthbert. A wealth of writing was produced for St Cuthbert's cult. Works written in the 8th Century by the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede inspired many more over the centuries, reinforcing this link between saint and church.

Indeed, according to these writings, it was the long-dead St Cuthbert who chose his final resting place during the community's travels, making his coffin immoveable at a bend in the river where Durham Cathedral, and his shrine, remain today.

Central to St Cuthbert's cult was the greatest miracle of all: his uncorrupt body, a sign of great purity and holiness. This miracle was first witnessed in AD698, some 11 years after his death, when Cuthbert's body was elevated from its tomb on Lindisfarne and found to be undecayed, as flexible as a living man.

'Competitive sainthood'

Lindisfarne Gospels: A timeline

Infographic: Lindisfarne Gospels timeline
  • St Cuthbert was the inspiration behind the Lindisfarne Gospels
  • A 1,300-year old manuscript, it contains a copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament
  • When the isle of Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings in AD875, the monk community moved to Chester-le-Street with their most treasured possessions, including St Cuthbert's shrine and the Lindisfarne Gospels
  • But why is this book so special?

The miracle of incorruption is certainly not unique to Cuthbert. What is unusual is that this miracle was witnessed and recorded on many more occasions.

An 11th-Century Durham sacrist, charged with caring for the saint's coffin, was reported to tenderly brush Cuthbert's hair. Most notably, in 1104 when Cuthbert was translated to the newly built Durham Cathedral, the discovery of his still-flexible state sanctioned his church's new home.

And in the 16th Century, Henry VIII's men were so awestruck by the preserved state of Cuthbert that they ceased their destruction at Durham Cathedral.

St Cuthbert's medieval cult attracted devotees from far and wide, most of them seeking a cure. As a living hermit on Lindisfarne and then on the Farne Islands, Cuthbert had healed Northumbrian royalty and other local people.

By the 12th and 13th Centuries, Cuthbert was reported to be curing nobles and paupers, lay and religious, from across England and Scotland, and one man from Norway. Ailments cured ranged from paralysis and demonic possession to gout, leprosy, haemorrhages and toothache.

Many of those seeking a cure would make a pilgrimage to the shrine, but miraculous intervention could also be sought at one of the many churches dedicated to St Cuthbert around England and southern Scotland.

In such a rich saintly market, it was important to show the pre-eminence of Cuthbert's abilities, and Durham accounts of competitive sainthood show him outshining others including St Edmund and Thomas Becket.

Durham and Dunfermline offer an example of a more harmonious saintly tie, seen when Cuthbert's relics were paraded with the procession for St Margaret of Scotland's feast day in Dunfermline.

Cuddy's ducks

All saints have specialisms and Cuthbert is no exception. He is probably best known for his affinity with animals, most evident in his early lives including that written by Bede.

Image shows a male Eider duck Eider ducks are known in Northumberland as Cuddy's ducks. Cuddy is a familiar form of Cuthbert

Cuthbert's protection and gentle admonition of birds and sea creatures is derived from the Celtic tradition, which was also highly influential in the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels, almost contemporary with the death of Cuthbert.

Cuthbert's affinity with nature continues today through his association with Eider ducks, known in Northumberland as Cuddy's ducks, as a colony nests on the Farne Islands, where Cuthbert had his hermitage.

A far cry from the gentle ministrations to nature, St Cuthbert has also been said to specialise in misogyny. Several miracle tales do indeed show him punishing women who approached his shrine, and there is one where a female weasel nesting in his tomb was forced to leave after Cuthbert informed the sacrist to remove her and her young.

It seems more likely that this is an example of St Cuthbert as protector of his church - in these cases, protecting the monastic purity of his cult's origins.

St Cuthbert's cult thrived as an intrinsic part of a culturally rich church, and his legacy survives today. Several fine manuscripts in the British Library and Durham include the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest surviving intact book in Europe.

A collection of treasures is displayed in the museum of Durham Cathedral, many of which were stored in his coffin including an iconic pectoral cross. And the majestic Durham Cathedral itself, built around this powerful saint's shrine, is frequently named as one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe.

St Cuthbert continues to be seen as protector of his people, most recently when he was claimed as the figurehead for devolution in the North East.

Dr Sally Crumplin is History Course Organiser at the Office of Lifelong Learning, University of Edinburgh

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